Few occupations are more monotonous and colorless than the work of a scattered colony of placer miners along the line of a creek. The Gold Cañon miners toiled in the usual way with long toms and rockers, washing the sand from the various bars, and when the richest placers were exhausted, carrying sacks and buckets of earth from the neighboring ravines to the nearest spring or to the creek itself.
At nightfall they would return to their huts, cook their simple suppers of bacon and potatoes, with bread and tea, smoke a pipe or two, and then wrap themselves up in their blankets to sleep until daybreak.
In summer most of the huts were merely heaps of brush, rather inferior to the Pah-Ute lodges. The winter cabins were usually of rough stones, plastered with mud and covered with canvas, boards, or sticks, overlaid with earth. Sometimes holes were made in the walls for ventilation, but generally the cracks and open doorways were sufficient. Glass windows were an unthought-of luxury. Some of the better cabins had small iron stoves and funnels, but the majority of the miners were content with stone fire-places and rude cranes.
A nondescript ball was sometimes given at one of the stations, but few of the miners succeeded in varying the staple amusements of gambling and drinking. On Sundays the men “rested" usually – that is, "washed their clothes and cleaned up their cabins."
Some of the miners were fairly expert hunters, and used to supply their friends at times with a steak of antelope or mountain sheep, which they shot among the neighboring hills. The ravines of the range were then (1851-57) covered with a thick growth of small cedars, pines, and underbrush, which afforded a good covert for deer and hares, game which was quite abundant until the Indians and the miners thinned their numbers. Except when a supply of fresh meat was thus obtained the miners, as a rule, contented themselves with bacon or salt beef, which they purchased at the stations.
Occasionally a ranchman from the valleys would drive a cow or calf up the cañon, slaughter the animal at some convenient point and sell portions as required, or roast the whole by a barbecue. Potatoes, almost the sole vegetable in demand, were also purchased from the farmers or ranchmen in the valleys. All other supplies were bought at the station stores.
Generally, a sufficient variety was kept in stock, and the prices were not exorbitant considering the extraordinary cost of transportation across the Sierras or over the plains. Until grist-mills were built in Carson Valley in 1854, flour was purchased from the emigrant trains at prices ranging from 4 cents to $2.50 per pound, in proportion to the scarcity and demand.
After the valley farmers began to grind their own wheat and the failure of supplies was no longer dreaded, the market price of flour was usually 15 cents per pound, and potatoes which in early years (1850-'53) sold for $1 per pound fell to 5 cents per pound.
When crops grown in the valley were offered for sale in 1854, barley was sold at 44 cents per pound; beef, at from 12 to 18 cents; coffee and sugar, for 50 cents per pound." But it sometimes happened that supplies of certain necessary articles were exhausted when the stock could not be renewed, as in the winter of 1856–57, when many miners were without boots or had none fit to be worn.
The only means of obtaining a supply was through the expressman, John A. Thompson, who alone ventured to cross the Sierras in the heart of winter. He offered $1.50 per pound to any man who would accompany him back from Placerville and carry freight to Gold Cañon, but could find no one willing to face the perils of the passage, and few indeed could have made the attempt with success except men like this stalwart Norwegian, trained to endure extremes of cold and fatigue, and skimming fearlessly over snow-filled crevasses on his wooden shoes.
In crossing from the valley he met four tired men 25 miles from Placerville, who had advanced only 10 miles in three days and had not as yet fairly entered the snow belt. As the light-footed courier slid past, they asked him despondingly whether they were almost through the snow. "There are 45 miles more of it," he cried back, without slackening pace.
Remembering the wearisome and terrible passages of Walker, Bidwell, Fremont, the Donners, the Raymond brothers, and others who risked their lives in the sierran snows, the frequent and fearless trips of Thompson seem marvelous at first thought; but these parties were generally unfamiliar with the route to be traversed, or worse still, were heavily handicapped with baggage or feeble companions; while the blond Norwegian, a model of manly vigor, could run across the Sierras, scarcely pausing for breath.
He carried neither blankets nor overcoat—not even provisions, except a small parcel of dried beef and crackers in the bosom of his flannel shirt, which he eat as he ran. For drink he had a handful of snow caught up as he skimmed along, or the water of some mountain spring. At night he made his bed of pine boughs and slept on the snow field. Only the fiercest storms could bar his passage.
He ran from Carson Valley to Placerville, a distance of 100 miles, in three days, and returned in two, bearing a heavy load of mail and baggage over the pass. During the winter months this mountain Mercury was almost the sole medium of communication between the miners in their inaccessible cañon and the rest of the world.
Their wants, it is true, were simple. They cared only to fill their canvas bags with gold dust as quickly as possible and migrate to a pleasanter country. They required no courts, churches, alms-houses, prisons, nor any other of the institutions of civilization. Once, it may be noted, they were somewhat at a loss for a clergyman, but the lack was supplied by the wit of a woman.
William Dover, a miner on the cañon, met by chance Rachel Albright, a young woman crossing the plains with an emigrant train in 1864, and wished to make her his wife. She consented, and only one obstacle barred their union. There was no clergyman or civil magistrate in the valley and the young woman was not willing to waive the marriage ceremony for the time being, as was suggested.
It appeared probable that the lovers would be parted, perhaps forever, as the emigrant train would soon cross the Sierras, and Dover was not disposed to abandon his productive claim on the cañon for a less certain prize.
In this strait Mrs. James B. Ellis, the wife of a pioneer miner, undertook to unite the pair by a civil contract sufficiently formal to satisfy the scruples of the bride. Rachel Albright accepted the offer and received a certificate of marriage from Mrs. Ellis; a duplicate contract was given to the bride's brother, and Mrs. Ellis reserved a copy herself. The legality of the marriage rite was never questioned by the bridegroom or bride, though their union was ended by a divorce a few years later.
The miners could not attribute, therefore, the decadence of their colony on the cañon to the presence of a clergyman or the erection of a church, which prospectors commonly regard as a bad omen. Yet it was becoming evident, in 1857, that unless new discoveries were made the cañon would soon be abandoned. Maiden Bar, Greenhorn Point, and other rich local placers had been "cleaned up to bed rock" several times and the average yield since 1855 was yearly decreasing.
Exactly how much gold had been obtained cannot be learned, but an approximate estimate can be made, based on the testimony of a trustworthy prospector who mined on the cañon from 1853 to 1859, confirmed by a collection of reports from the Sacramento Union and other California newspapers.
When James B. Ellis reached the cañon in the summer of 1853 he took up a claim 100 feet long near the entrance of the ravine, which he worked from the fall of 1853 till June, 1854, employing two assistants and using a "long tom." The claim yielded an average return to each man of from $12 to $20 per day. Seven working months from November 1, 1853, to June 1, 1854, of twenty-six days each = 182 days X3 (number of miners) x $16, average daily earnings = $8,736. But this claim was a new and uncommonly productive one, whose yield is merely cited as an example of the best class on the cañon.
The average earnings of the miners were only from $4 to $5 per day individually, and the following table is prepared with due allowance for the shifting numbers of the colony and the inferior yield of the poorer placers:
The notable falling off in the returns during the last year was due not only to the fast approaching exhaustion of the placers, but to the scanty supply of water, for during this season very little snow fell.